Stamp Stories: Ruth Asawa

Just for Kids!
Ruth Asawa and a sheet of stamps showing her artwork

Learn about the fascinating life of Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American artist whose sculptures are featured on a set of postage stamps issued by the USPS in August 2020. Museum educators share photos of Asawa from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, read from a children’s book about Asawa, and take a close look at the stamps of her work.

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum. Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps.

Beth: I’m Beth from the National Portrait Gallery, and I want to welcome you to Introducing, where we introduce you to the people and stories that have shaped our history.

Maureen: Stamps are put onto mail to show that the sender has paid the right amount to get the mail delivered. New stamps come out every year that are about a lot of different topics. In August of 2020, the United States Postal Service issued a set of stamps celebrating the art of Ruth Asawa.

Beth: I am happy to introduce you to Ruth Asawa, an artist who made a unique style all her own.

Ruth Asawa was a pioneer. A pioneer is someone who does something hard that no one has done before and creates a path for others to follow them. Asawa lived at a time when women were not encouraged to be artists. It was especially hard for Ruth as a Japanese-American woman, because there was a lot of racism against Japanese Americans. She did not let that stop her. Not only was Ruth a pioneer for being an artist, but the art she made was unlike anything people had seen before! In this portrait we see Ruth Asawa sitting on the ground, surrounded by her art. Can you see her artwork on the floor? Can you see art hanging from the ceiling? Can you find triangles? Circles? Ovals? She created all these sculptures with her hands.

A sculpture is art that has multiple sides. Often you can see the different sides by walking around it. In this portrait Ruth looks very focused as she creates a sculpture. Have you ever made a sculpture? You can use dough, mud, paper, or any materials you find. Can you imagine how many knots and twists it would take to create something like what Ruth is doing? Behind her we see one of her finished sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Notice how light it looks as it hangs. Asawa combined art, science, and technology to experiment with shapes and textures. She said, “An artist is not special.  An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

Here we see Ruth Asawa in her studio. A studio is a space where art is made. Artists use studios as their creative space. Where do you create art? Do you have a special room or table where you make things? Looking at this portrait, how can you tell this is a studio? I see art – the sculptures Ruth made – as well as the wires on the ground next to her that she used to make these sculptures. Behind her we see chairs, a cabinet, and other items that let us know this is also a home. It is her home! Ruth Asawa used her whole house as a studio, and she invited her six children to be part of her creative process. In their home, everyday objects like boxes and bottles could be transformed into beautiful art.  

Asawa taught that anyone could and should create art using objects around them and their imaginations. She worked hard to give people, especially children, greater opportunities to create art. She founded schools and community groups, and said, “A child can learn something about color, about design, and about observing objects in nature.” Now, as you look at the sculptures in this portrait, what do they remind you of? Ruth used metal wires to create tree-like sculptures. She was always looking for inspiration in the world around her. She said, “If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better… It makes a person broader.”

 Now let’s read a book about how art changed Ruth Asawa’s life. This book is called A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa. It was written and illustrated by Andrea D’Aquino. Special thanks to the author and publisher for giving us permission to share some of this book with our viewers.

This is the story of an artist you may have never heard of. Her name is Ruth Asawa. She was born in California and her whole family worked on a farm. Working with her hands was an ordinary thing to do. It was what all the hardworking people around her did. But Ruth was no ordinary person.

Ruth looked carefully at everything around her. “What kind of plant are you?” she wondered. “What a fascinating shape your shell is, Snail.”

Ruth liked to look at the drops of water in her garden. She often stopped to notice how the light shone through their delicate shapes. Her hands were always busy making things out of anything she could find. She made tiny animals out of the wire she found around the farm. She created shapes by folding paper.  

When Ruth was older she continued to study art. She went to Black Mountain College, an unusual school filled with brilliant people People like choreographer Merce Cunningham, who made shapes in the air with dancers’ bodies.

Maureen: Ruth was eager to learn from interesting people around her. On a trip to Mexico, a local craftsman taught her how to weave with wire, looping it around and around to make baskets.

When Ruth got back home, she experimented with wire. She was so excited to discover that a line can go anywhere. In Ruth’s hands, simple wire turned into graceful sculptures that were light as air.

Now it was time for other people to look closely and wonder. “How did she make that?” “I think it defies gravity.” “Is it some kind of sea creature?” “Maybe something from outer space!”

The one thing everyone knew was that her sculptures were beautiful. People go to see Ruth’s art in museums all around the world. You can too.

It’s fantastic if you ever do have a chance to see Ruth’s art in person at a museum or an art gallery, and of course you can also find lots of examples of her art online. Another way you can appreciate her art is by exploring the postage stamps dedicated to her. Let’s take a look!

This image shows the full set of 20 stamps, with 10 different sculptures included. It also has a picture of Ruth at work. Can you see the long lines stretching out in front of her? It looks like a sketch of a sculpture idea - maybe one of the sculptures included in the stamp collection. Do you see a stamp that might match the sketch?

Ruth loved working with lines and experimenting with the different ways they could be joined to create shapes. As she once said, “a line can go anywhere.”

Here’s a closer look at the artwork chosen for the stamps. Ruth made all these sculptures with wire, weaving it in and out, the way you can do with yarn, or maybe straw, or other flexible materials. She found so much of her inspiration in the natural world – plants, animals, raindrops – everything around her. Do you see anything in these sculptures that reminds you of something you've seen in nature? What do you think might have inspired her to make these?

For this sculpture, Ruth wove wire to make closed shapes. Notice how the shapes are connected to each other, and the lines all look rounded and smooth. Ruth often created art with a strong sense of symmetry, or balance, so if you put a line down the middle, both sides would look the same. Can you see that in this work? Something that’s so interesting about Ruth’s sculptures is that some of them were made using a single long piece of wire, looped onto itself over and over and over.

Many of Ruth’s wire sculptures also have open sections. Ruth started experimenting with putting openings in her sculptures because of a happy accident. By mistake she once cut into a sculpture she was making and then she realized she was interested in exploring the idea of putting openings, or windows as she called them, into her works. You can see many of those windows in this sculpture.

She also sometimes joined many smaller pieces of wire together, to create works like the trees we saw in the photo Beth showed us. Ruth turned to sculpture to recreate some shapes from nature because for her that often worked better than drawing them. Do you ever make art based on what you see in nature? There are so many ways to do it!

Beth: Speaking of art inspired by nature, some of my young friends, Pearl and Virginia, made these trees, inspired by nature and Ruth Asawa’s art. They used scraps of construction paper, cardboard, and tape, with some crayons on the bottom. Anyone can make art, just like Ruth Asawa said.

Thanks so much for joining us today! We were so happy to combine two Smithsonian programs to explore the life of Ruth Asawa, a truly inspiring artist.

Maureen: We hope you’ll be back again for both Stamp Stories and Introducing. You can find these videos, along with other resources, on our museums’ websites. In the meantime, we encourage you to just keep exploring!